I just wanted to get this idea out there while it is still fresh and rough in my head, so pardon the mess.
I was watching this week's Bytejacker and the question of the week was about people's favorite ice level in a game. Everyone talked about their favorites except for one guy. He started talking about how much he hated ice levels and how he was going to make a game around all of the terrible cliches that make up most ice levels. That to me hits on something very interesting about level design and the language of games.
There are plenty of design cliches (let's call them tropes from now on, it is a little less derogatory) out there that anyone who picked up a controller for the last 25 years or so would be familiar. Just put in any old 16-bit platformer and you could make your own list of them. Most of them are still around today.
What exactly do these tropes get us though? For one, they bring us an economy of expression. Since they are so ubiquitous, they are also well understood and don't have to be explained in any overt way to the player. Ice is slippery, so when you stop on it, you will slide. This is an expected outcome and it requires very little "teaching" and can simply be integrated into the difficulty curve without any sort of tutorial.
How much of this comes from our experience with games though? If the design language "short-cuts" that a well established trope allows a designer to make are based entirely in the direct language of games, how much does using them narrow the communicative value of a game? I think that there are some of these tropes that are based almost entirely on established game knowledge. These are all of the mechanics that have their roots in abstract rules. Think combos, scoring mechanics, turns, anything of that sort. They all have their roots in pre-video game games like board games and card games. They assume a knowledge of the abstract rules of a game. If you have played a lot of games, you notice successful mechanics like this being passed around from game to game. After a while they don't even get explained. They are the things that make a game feel like a game. They require a great deal of explanation if you are unfamiliar with their roots. They are also the things that can push a player away from the experience if they are nor familiar with those abstract rules.
There is another class of tropes that is not based in game languge, but rather the shared experience of sensory input. Things like ice, fire, and even spikes are all based on human sensory experience. Ice is expected to be slippery, cold, and fragile and so it is in video games. You slide on ice, ice can be used to reduce temperatures, and it falls from the ceiling when you pass by. These are all expected outcomes, but they don't come from an understanding of the rules of the game; they come from our expectations of how ice should behave in the real world and then these expectations are translated into the game space. When done well, these tropes pull a player into the game space more by helping to establish links between expected outcomes in the real world. They can be almost completely transparent rule teachers.
However, these tropes are highly visible in older 8 and 16-bit games. This is because the level of abstraction in older games is so much higher than in modern games now. Ice was still used as a design language short-cut, but it led to very specific and limited rule based interactions. As the level of abstraction is decreased in modern games, these tropes still exist, but they are more transparent. Ice, generalized to snow and cold weather, exists in many modern games and if it behaves like we expect it to, it can help to pull us into the experience.
This is as far as I am at the moment. The way that embodied metaphors (those bits of game/design language that are based on actual human sensory experience) can be used in games to further engagement, even in highly abstract games, is very interesting to me. It is something that we used to teach ourselves about the world when we were children, but that for some reason we think that we lose touch with it as we get older and our thinking becomes more abstract. So long for now.
P.S. I think I'm going to polish up this idea and send it off in abstract form to The Escapist (which is a weekly online game magazine that has some pretty awesome articles). I bet i could really make this thing shine if someone would pay me for it.